Over recent years I’ve had the privilege on more than one occasion of sharing Varuna (the National Writers House) with the generous and engaging journalist and novelist Kate Cole-Adams. So I was delighted last week to attend the Melbourne launch of Kate’s new book, Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness.
Launched at Readings in Carlton by award-winning Australian author Helen Garner, Anaesthesia explores ‘some of the strange things that anaesthetic drugs can do to the mind – and the ways in which the mind tries to make sense of them’. Combining scientific discussion with tales of intensely personal experience, Kate’s book delves into some fascinating questions. While on the operating table, she asks, can we hear what’s going on around us? ‘Is pain still pain if we’re not awake to feel it, or don’t remember it afterwards? How does the unconscious mind deal with the body’s experience of being cut open and ransacked? And how can we help ourselves through it?’
None of these are small questions, which is why it’s no surprise Anaesthesia was more than a decade in the making. At the Sydney School of Arts & Humanities I mentor writers working on long and complex manuscripts, so I asked Kate for advice on their behalf. What’s the key to persevering?
Sharon (S): Your book had a long gestation. Roughly how long did it take you to get from the initial idea to the point of publication?
Kate (K): The idea started sloshing around in my head as early as 1999 when I met a woman who had woken paralysed but otherwise completely aware and in pain during a caesarean birth. I wrote a Good Weekend cover story in 2001 in which I outlined many of the concerns that I went on to develop in Anaesthesia. I started working on it in a focused way in 2004 after receiving an Ozco grant. There were various interruptions including an 18-month or so break while I was getting my novel Walking to the Moon ready for publication. But basically it was in my thoughts every day (and often at night!). I got very very very sick of it!
S: What advice would you give to writers working on similarly long projects?
K: Hmmm. I learnt a lot during the process of writing, some of which I now teach my journalist colleagues at The Age [a job I finish at the end of this week]. The most important would be to try to work out early on what the story is not about, in other words to narrow your field of focus early. Certainly this would have saved me time. At the start I was proposing a book that included the history of anaesthesia as well as my research into coma and other unconscious states. Way too much! That said, you can’t always know early on what it is that draws you in. If I know at the outset exactly why I’m drawn to a topic, then I probably don’t need to write about it.
As far as other suggestions, I guess if I were advising my younger self, it would be simply to have faith, to not despair, and to follow the thread of what interested/captivated/obsessed me most, not to try and fit everything in, particularly not to try and write a book for everybody else. While I think trusted readers can be very important later in the process, in the end you can’t write a book everyone’s going to like. So write the one you want to write and read. And be kind to you.
S: As you mention in the acknowledgements section of your book, the topic of anaesthesia is not only ‘entirely fascinating’, but also ‘slippery’ and ‘layered’. What strategies did you use to get your head around such a complex subject?
K: Trial. Error. Panic. Structure is important. Once you have a sense of what it is you’re doing (which in my case admittedly took years), you really need to find a structure that echoes and enhances the content. I think the breakthrough for me was recognising that I couldn’t write the book I wanted to about anaesthesia and unconscious processes without including my own unconscious processes. This was the biggest challenge for me. But it made complete sense within the context of this subject matter. It meant giving myself permission to lose my way, while trying to keep a hold on the big picture. Also, it meant working out what research was important, but not losing my voice. In the end, I’m the storyteller and I tell the story. It’s crucial. Otherwise you can lose yourself in jargon.
S: Many of our Sydney School of Arts & Humanities members are interested in learning about life writing. Your book is threaded through with stories of personal experience. How did you go finding the right balance between the personal and the scientific aspects of the narrative?
K: Again, trial and error. The scientific stuff was difficult and time consuming but once I’d narrowed my focus I knew from pretty early what the main points were and how I would structure that aspect. The personal material was more challenging. I kept putting it in and pulling it out again. I think an important guide is that in a book like this, although I feature in it – and although my voice is crucially what holds the book together – I had to keep reminding myself the book is not about me. It’s something I say to journalists too: when you use the “I” be aware that it’s never really about you. Or at least it is, but you are using your own experiences in the service of a bigger more universal story. So only use what is entirely relevant, either to the subject matter or to setting up the mood. Ideally both.
S: What were the main questions that drove you to research Anaesthesia? Do you feel like you ended up with any definitive answers? Does the ‘unknowable realm beyond consciousness’ now feel any more or less mysterious?
K: I worked out along the way that this was a book of questions, not answers. Again this made sense for this subject matter. For me I wanted to understand who we are and what we might experience under an anaesthetic, and whether that might affect us in our waking lives afterwards. I also wanted to work out why it mattered so much to me. I think as a result the unknowable realm feels both less and more mysterious.
S: What do you hope readers will learn from Anaesthesia?
K: That there are things that can happen to us under anaesthesia that our doctors may not tell us about, but which may be very helpful to know a little about in advance. I think this can be particularly true under light anaesthetics, which may feel like unconsciousness afterwards (because you don’t remember it), but during which you may be awake and from which you may take memories.
Also, to understand that each time you have an anaesthetic you are entering not only into a carefully calibrated chemical coma, but also into a great and wonderful mystery, a wonder of modern medicine. Finally, that it is not only okay to ask questions, but also to advocate for yourself. Many anaesthetists are very receptive and like talking about what they do. Ask if you can listen to music. Ask that the anaesthetist talk to you during the process, reassure you and use your name. Remember that you are a crucial part of the process, and that you are paying for it, either directly or through your taxes.
S: How do you feel now that the book is published?
K: Relieved. Overwhelmed. Vindicated. Tired. Excited.
Picture credits: Photographs of Anaesthesia book cover and Kate Cole-Adams speaking and signing books at her Melbourne launch by Sharon Dean. Image of Varuna writers Sharon Dean, Kate Cole-Adams, Penny Gibson, Lynne Talmont and Peter Ghin by Vera Costello.
Note: Kate recently featured on ABC Radio’s popular podcast, Conversations with Richard Fidler. Definitely worth a listen!